200 Years of Bourbon

One of the joys—and sometimes frustrations—of choosing songs for The Shenandoah Harmony   was the often overwhelming number of different shape-note arrangements available for the same song.  BOURBON (13t), which has been in print since 1814, is a classic example.  We  chose two different settings of the melody (13t BOURBON and 260t CONFLICT) plus two closely related melodies (7t SUPPLICATION and 305 THO’ DARK BE MY WAY).

I’ve been fascinated by the difference in harmony between BOURBON and CONFLICT for a long time.  The song goes under several other titles, including MEDITATION, DISMISSION, and BRETHREN, PRAY. I started collecting different versions.  With the help of Nikos Pappas, I have found twelve harmonizations from the years 1814-1911 that are substantially different from each other, plus a handful that differ from these in a minor way.

This post is a sketch for a much longer academic article I’m writing about the BOURBON tune family.  The story is a fascinating one, covering not only the history of this particular tune, but also the process of tunebook compilation and editing, the shift away from “ancient-style” harmony and towards “scientific” functional harmony that occurred over the course of the nineteenth century, the change in attitudes towards the minor mode and modal music in general, and the transformation of the physical form and function of American hymn and tune books in this period.

Although there are more arrangements than these, I’ll look at a few of the most interesting and influential prototypes:

  • BOURBON, The Beauties of Harmony, 1814.
  • DISMISSION, The Missouri Harmony, 1820.
  • MEDITATION, The Southern Harmony, 1835.
  • BRETHREN, PRAY, The American Vocalist, 1848.
  • CONFLICT, Hymn and Tune Book, for use in Old School or Primitive Baptist Churches, 1886.

Please note that you can click on any score to see a larger version.  Also there are MIDI files available for all the music on this page—just look for the link that says MIDI and click on it.


Below is the first published version of the song, from Freeman Lewis’ Beauties of Harmony   (1814).  Notice the alto clef and the archaic time signature (the backwards “C” meant 4/4 measure at a moderate tempo, led in two beats per measure).  I wonder how the clash between the sharp 7 (sol) in the tenor and the natural 7 in the other parts was supposed to resolve.  Modern Sacred Harp singers would probably ignore the sharp, but we don’t know what Lewis expected from his students.

MIDI – Lewis’ Bourbon


Tunebook compilers often changed or “corrected” songs they selected from other books.  In the first edition of A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony (1820), Ananias Davisson prints the Beauties of Harmony arrangement, with the accidentals omitted (Davisson didn’t believe in accidentals) and with the alto in the treble clef.

Here’s what appears in the second edition (c.1822):


Oops! Davisson meant to vary the rhythm of the song, halving the long held notes after phrases one and three and adding more time in the middle.  However, he forgot to change the treble and alto.  He corrects his mistake in the third edition (1826):

MIDI – Davisson’s Bourbon


This type of change to rhythms or individual notes was quite common.  Lewis’ (or Davisson’s) arrangement appears in several subsequent books; sometimes the alto is omitted.


Both this song, DISMISSION, and Davisson’s version of BOURBON appear in the first edition of The Missouri Harmony (1820).  Identical or similar versions of DISMISSION are in several other books.  William Caldwell added an alto in his Union Harmony (1837).

MIDI – Dismission



The arrangement of MEDITATION that Walker selects for The Southern Harmony   seems loosely based on DISMISSION—look at the treble in particular.  If we define dissonances to be seconds, in any octave (so that sevenths and ninths also count as dissonances), this one definitely wins the award for the most of them.  I’ve highlighted all the dissonances in red.

MIDI – Meditation, Southern Harmony


In 1866, Walker added an alto, revised the treble and bass, and adopted the more modern seven-shape notation.  As Karen Willard pointed out, in a thought-provoking thread on fasola-discussions that she titled “evolution in harmonic tastes,” William Walker commented, “The harmony of this tune has been corrected and improved expressly for this work.”  You can see that there are now only three dissonances, despite the added fourth part.  The phrase bars indicate the end of each line of poetry.

MIDI – Meditation, Christian Harmony


The Deason-Parris revision of The Christian Harmony   (1958) has still more changes.  The number of dissonances is the same, but they appear in different places.  In addition, the alto moves up to “si” right before the repeat sign, completing a minor triad rather than doubling the treble and leaving an ambiguous dyad.  This version is also in The Christian Harmony, 2010.

MIDI – Meditation, Christian Harmony 1958



While ancient-style part writing places the melody in the tenor and gives each voice part a melodic line to sing, scientific or reformed harmony often locates the melody in the soprano and employs chord progressions, rather than individual melodic motion in the supporting voices, to give the piece forward momentum.  Although Mansfield’s round-note American Vocalist   was published before The Christian Harmony, it contained a mix of ancient and reformed styles.  The melody is still in the tenor, but in other ways this setting is much more “scientific” than any we have seen yet, using standard chord progressions like iv-V-i.  Mansfield also “corrects” the rhythm by setting the song in 3/4.

MIDI – Brethren, Pray, American Vocalist, 1848



Quite possibly the strangest old arrangement of any shape-note song appears in the Primitive Baptist Hymn and Tune Book   by Durand & Lester, 1886.  By the 1880s, minor songs were completely out of fashion, partly due to the notion that they couldn’t be harmonized “scientifically.”  So…  The song is recast in a major key, with the melody ending on the sixth degree of the scale.  Wow.

Note the upright format of the pages—oblong books were expensive to produce, and these condensed scores, with the melody on top, were easier to read on the piano or organ.

MIDI – Conflict, Durand & Lester, 1886


Daily’s Primitive Baptist Hymn and Tune Book preserves some of the strengths of the Durand & Lester setting without the awkward ending.  After firmly establishing the major key (Bb) by the end of the first line, it modulates to G minor in the last few bars.  There’s even a German sixth chord in the last complete measure!

MIDI – Conflict, Daily, 1911PBH206_Conflict_orig

Very similar settings appear in the Old School Hymnal and The Shenandoah Harmony. Daily wasn’t the first shape-note arranger to make this sort of modulation—check out Hauser’s BEGONE UNBELIEF (MIDI), which is the basis for my arrangement of THO DARK BE MY WAY.  It’s amazing that Hauser, in 1848, anticipated this early 20th century setting.

There are several new arrangements of the BOURBON tune family in modern hymnals.  I particularly like Louise McAllister’s 1958 setting in The Worshiping Church (1990), which retains the modal character of the original. Here’s a MIDI.


Some readers were so fascinated by Durand & Lester’s setting that I posted a bunch of scans here: Selections_from_Durand_and_Lester.  I also transcribed O LAND OF REST (PDF) and you can hear the MIDI, too!  This one, I want to sing. It’s attributed to Caldwell, but that’s just the melody – his setting, called New-Market, was harmonized in the minor mode, with the ending note as the tonic (E minor).






2 responses to “200 Years of Bourbon”

  1. David Avatar

    Just of tunes in the Shenandoah Harmony, I would consider Davisson’s “Tender Thought” and “The Humble Penitent” to be further variants of BOURBON, and I think a case could be made for “Davisson’s Retirement” as well!

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Very interesting observation, David. I totally agree on HUMBLE PENITENT–this is one that I’m discussing in my article. Perhaps the connection to BOURBON explains why Davisson chose to end the treble and alto parts on the 6-la, suggesting a minor chord. It’s also true that all four tunes have similar structure, though I would say the last two are more distant in melody. If we break them up in to four-bar phrases, then
      BOURBON = ab a’c de ab
      HUMBLE PENITENT = ab ac de a’f
      DAVISSON’S RETIREMENT = ab ac db ab
      TENDER THOUGHT = ab ac de ab
      The c part ends with “fa-sol-la” in all of these except DAVISSON’S RETIREMENT. Also the contour is similar – a ascends a little, b descends a little, c ascends more, d is high, the next phrase descends a lot, then the ending is similar to the first two phrases, except in HUMBLE PENITENT. Thanks for pointing this out!

      I should also say that this sort of contour is very common in American folk hymns –think of NEW BRITAIN (AMAZING GRACE, for folks who aren’t shape-note singers).